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Sustainable energy solutions for the poor

Posted by Rajendra K. Pachauri on 19 January 2011

An important aspect of development, which has received woefully inadequate attention from the global community, and even most national governments, relates to the widespread lack of energy access across the globe. In the past voices were raised to include access to energy as one of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), but this did not find favour with some country governments. The result is that almost twenty years after the Rio Summit we still have almost a billion and a half people across the world without access to electricity in their homes. And, well over two billion depend on biomass as a cooking fuel, often inferior in quality, with serious adverse impacts on the health of those who are exposed to harmful emissions from these fuels.

Lighting a Billion Lives

There is now some stirring of interest at various levels worldwide, resulting from a genuine concern targeting the welfare of such a large section of human society as well as the potential for reducing future greenhouse gas emissions in those poor countries which are currently deprived of modern fuels, but would normally follow the path of fossil fuel use as an outcome of development. One major innovation is the programme launched by TERI for Lighting a Billion Lives (LaBL) which is based on the development of highly efficient and cost-effective solar lanterns, which are provided through a variety of measures, some of which are market-based, to villages without electricity. Typically a woman is trained as an entrepreneur to charge the solar lanterns within a village using a photovoltaic panel on her roof and renting out the lanterns to the villagers during the night. TERI has covered over 600 villages with this programme in India and several others in other parts of Asia including Myanmar and with plans to implement this programme in parts of Africa, such as in Sierra Leone. However, institutional innovations, large scale financing arrangements, training and capacity building would be essential prerequisites for the wide success of such a programme at the global level.

A programme such as LaBL provides great promise for the provision of clean and sustainable lighting solutions to those who would probably have no hope otherwise for the early use of electricity in their homes. However the outlook for effective, environmentally clean and sustainable energy solutions to meet the cooking needs of the world’s poor does not appear very bright. It is time that the global community at large, multilateral development organizations, and corporate organizations intent on socially relevant initiatives mount major efforts to innovate in this area to tackle a form of deprivation, which is completely out of place in a globalised world moving ahead with economic growth and technological advancement in the 21st century.

RK Pachauri
Director-General, TERI
Chairman, IPCC

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